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Colouring outside the lines: saying goodbye to beige leadership

business woman leadership

What colour is your leadership style? Shades of beige, or a riot of ideation and colourful innovation? The time of beige leadership values and the self-propagating disaster that shadows them have an ever-shortening life span as innovation, business structure and cultural and societal changes evolve at an increasingly rapid speed. Take these statistics to heart as an example of the need for active change from a lack of colour in the workplace.

According to a Gallup’s State of the Global Workplace worldwide survey, only 13 per cent of employees are actively engaged at work. To put it another way, approximately 180 million employees in the 142-country study are disengaged — yes, they are going to work and going through the motions of doing their jobs, but they are unlikely to be collaborating and making positive contributions to their employers and organisations. Engagement levels vary across different global regions, with the Gallup report sharing that the US and Canada have the highest level of engaged workers (29 per cent) followed by Australia and New Zealand (24 per cent).

Philosopher Charles Handy talks about the phenomenon of the ‘Sigmoid Curve’. According to Handy, the best time to start a new ‘curve’ is before you reach the peak of your existing one. That way, you will be starting something new when you still have the resources, and the spirit, to take it to new heights. In contrast, most people think of doing something new only when they have reached the bottom of what they are presently involved in.

Successful industries are constantly reinventing themselves. Thus, to remain relevant in tomorrow’s world, the ‘beige’ leader, in whatever format, needs to be removed and replaced so a new curve can be started. In their place — in the new ‘curve’ — we will find strength, inspiration and influential leadership from those individuals who are authentic. Leaders who are equally aware of their own unique values and strengths, as well as their weaknesses. Leaders who have, in their own unique way, colour and vibrance. Beige leadership simply won’t cut it anymore. Their curve is complete.

Beige leaders are those who are complacent in their role of ‘superiority’. They are accepting of traditional methods, and the way things have always been done. They will not entertain change and are closed to new ideas and creative thinking. They often lack vision and foresight, existing in the present and remaining closed to the possibilities of what could be. As a consequence they are unable to inspire others and find it difficult to work effectively within a team environment, particularly with those who are forward looking and curious about the possibilities of the future. Beige leaders sit comfortably in the squishy status quo sofa, often more concerned with survival than growth.

Beige companies:

  • find it difficult to compete with new players entering the market and challenging their products or services, delivering solutions that are better, quicker and even cheaper in some cases;
  • are secretive and insular; decisions are made behind closed doors. Mandates are shared in mass format. Meetings consist of ‘tells’ and the nodding of heads — and the real debate happens in hushed voices at the water filter or coffee machines;
  • lose customers as, unsurprisingly, they move their allegiance to the new kid on the block who is offering a better product with improved functionality or service and a value add to them, the client;
  • struggle to attract, recruit and retain talent. They fail to navigate the rapid changes that are happening in the marketplace and the leadership is unable to create a vision for the future. Staff become disengaged, products become stale, business slows down and profits decline; churn through the day making small adjustments and readjustments in the hope that these small actions will spark significant momentum in a rapidly changing world — but of course it is a mere blip. The result?

Beige companies fail to stop their own decline. Examples are everywhere from Atari as the leader to retro-gamer to Blockbuster no more – and as for waiting for the processing of that “Kodak moment’?Quite Simply, beige leadership won’t cut it anymore. The future needs leaders who are so comfortable in the space that they have the strength to lead and share, to learn and grow, who are actively curious and willing to give.

These leaders are capable of amplifying others; they build a culture that encourages and enables sharing, a culture of commercial collaboration that drives change and innovation. These leaders create the space and freedom to think, debate and ideate. This is a culture in which people from diverse skill bases, demographics, genders and industries have the opportunity to speak and be heard.

Boston Consulting Group states that organisations must today shift their business model and leadership skills to become more adaptive, to be better, faster and more economical than their competitors.

The leaders of the future are the ones that are authentic, see the value in collaborative working and create the space and freedom to ideate regardless of gender, race, age or seniority. They are agile, action-driven and results-oriented. They are focused and directional — strong in commitment and decisive in vision.

We live in a roaringly fast paced world. The people and businesses that will ultimately succeed will be the ones that are capable of evolution and innovation. They will keep their eye on the ultimate goal and be willing to change their dance as required to get there.

The leader of the future, the leader in the collaborative ‘We” space, has to:

  • be restless, curious and open to opportunity; evolve and try new things; be looking out for ‘what’s next’ at all times
  • combine emotional intelligence with economic intelligence
  • balance care for human capital as much as financial capital
  • balance quick thinking and decision-making and yet be flexible and open to change
  • be agile and keep up with the speed of change
  • understand almost perfect is perfect, since the speed of change will make it impossible to get everything right the first time
  • have a willingness to not get perfection immediately but to allow perfection to evolve
  • collaborate more and be less mindful of hierarchy and position
  • be willing to share, mentor others, guide and take a step back
  • take an honest and open approach
  • create leaders in others and leadership around them
  • have a self-belief and inner confidence, an ability to trust themselves and the value they bring to the table.

One thing is certain — beige won’t cut it anymore.

About the Author:

Janine Garner is the Founder and CEO of LBDGroup and works with senior leaders to build high performing teams. She is also the author of From Me To We – Why commercial collaboration will future-proof business, leaders and personal success, published by Wiley. For more information visit http://www.janinegarner.com.au